Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mendez vs. Westminster

By Kim Patrick Noyes for History 210

Much as been written and spoken about the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education made by the progressive Warren Court in 1954 which stated that "separate but equal" is inherently unequal and thus unconstitutional and thus illegal. Much less known is it important precursor seven years earlier in Orange County in the community of Westminster, CA.

During World War Two a Japanese-American farmer in that community was interned in Arizona. A Mexican-American farmer named Gonzalo Mendez offered to lease the farm and keep it going while the owner was interned which offer was accepted and the deal went into effect. Mendez and his wife became very successful doing this work on the 40-acre farm even employing Braceros from the United States Government.

The Mendez Family pior to this lived in the Mexican-American district of Westminster and their several children attended a "Mexican" school in that part of town (the "wrong side of the tracks" as it were).Not immediately but eventually after taking the lease on the Japanese-American farm which was located in a white part of town the Mendez children were moved to their new home on the farm.

Their aunt, who had married a man of French decent and carried his name and whose mixed-race children were allowed to enroll in the segregated white school in that part of Westminster, attempted to get her brother Gonzalo's children into the same school. This attempt failed on the justification that "Mexican" kids needed to attend "Mexican" school. She pointed out that her own children attended the same school. However, this did not matter apparently due to their "mixed" ancestry.

When she informed her brother of this he responded without bitterness and optimistically went to both the local school board as well as the Orange County school board fully intending to get things cleared up.  Both school boards informed Mr. Mendez  that the ruling would stand and that it was quite legal.

Mr. Mendez then contacted a local Latino advocacy group to represent him in fighting this obvious injustice, but they would have nothing to do with the case.... at least initially. The Mendezes then decided to use their own resources acquired through their now quite successful agricultural enterprise to hire a private attorney to represent them in filing and executing a lawsuit in trial court against the Westminster School District.

The Mendezes' quite effective effective legal representation exhaustively researched and prepared their case adn marched a host of impressive witnesses before the court. To the surprise of many, Judge Paul McCormick found overwhelmingly in favor of the Mendez Family and repudiated the concept of  "separate but equal" way back in 1947, seven years BEFORE the Brown Decision.

The Mendez Decision occurred during the tenure of California Governor (and later United States Supreme Court Chief Justice in the Brown Decision) Earl Warren who within a couple of years signed legislation ending segregation of Asian and Native American children in all California public schools.

Additionally, NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) attorney Thurgood Marshall was involved in this case and would later be involved in the Brown Decision. Marshall and to a greater extent one of his subordinates, Robert L. Carter, wrote a supporting brief on behalf of the complainants in the unsuccessful appellate court challenge to the Mendez Decision. This brief would form the basis for the brief in the Brown Case seven years later.

There are three interesting footnotes to this story. First, Gonzalo Mendez' sister in protest of her brother's children not being allowed in the "white" school her own children attended pulled them out of that school and enrolled them in the same "Mexican" school her brother's children continued to attend. Second, it is worth noting the irony in all of this that there is now a school in Westminster, CA, name for Mr. and Mrs. Gonzalo Mendez. Unfortunately, they did not live to see it built and dedicated. Third, one of the Mendez' daughters while attending U.C. Riverside came across a written account of the Mendez Decision in a book she was reading. This came as quite a surprise to her as she and her siblings were utterly unaware of the case as they were too young at the time to remember it later and their parents never discussed it while they were growing up.


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